The Central Library and Southwest School of Art played host to the fourth annual San Antonio Book Festival on a warm, sunny Saturday that drew thousands downtown to mix and mingle with 95 authors participating in 70 different sessions in 11 different venues.
The indoor-outdoor event was free and open to everyone, including children, and in the outdoor venues, plenty of pet dogs.
Local, regional, and national authors, poets, journalists, chefs, and the festival’s first playwright participated in Q&A sessions, book signings, cooking demos, and performances throughout the day. An army of 555 volunteers dressed in bright orange t-shirts efficiently directed the crowd as people moved from event to event and location to location. Many using the smart phone app or printed map seemed to find their own way without any problem.
Overall, the free, indoor-outdoor event featured 95 authors in 70 sessions in 11 venues, as well as 555 volunteers, according to
Book festival Director Katy Flato welcome guests to a VIP breakfast at Club Giraud to start the day’s festivities, where Mayor Ivy Taylor, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro all spoke. Other state and local elected officials also attended.
“On a personal note I would say this is pretty much nirvana for me,” said Taylor, who described her love of breakfast and books in her recent PechaKucha presentation. But the power of literature is something not lost on her. A message she received from Police Chief William McManus last night, alerting her to the most recent shootings in the city that have claimed several lives, made her think of books as a force for peace and understanding and “the ability of books to inspire greater empathy.”
“We need to engage more San Antonians in reading,” she said. “I admire the authors in the room. You have the power to change lives, with your hands and hearts and minds and laptops.”
Wolff recalled frequent childhood visits with his brothers to the Beaux Arts building on East Market Street, which was then the 1930s-era city library. It’s now the Briscoe Western Art Museum.
“When I was a young boy, libraries allowed working class people to become readers,” he said.
If there was any indication on Saturday of the significant impact books still have on people, it was the large crowds that flocked to the festival and its variety of literary offerings sprinkled among venues inside and outside the Central Library, Southwest School of Art, and surrounding tents on Navarro, Augusta, and Giraud Streets. This year, 15,000 visitors were projected to attend, according to Tracey Bennett, president of the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, a sizeable increase from last year’s attendance of nearly 12,000 people.
“Libraries are cool again,” she said, smiling.
The nearly perfect spring weather, in contrast to rain and freezing temperatures of past festivals, was just another thing that made the 2016 San Antonio Book Festival “flow better” compared to year’s past, Bennett added. Along with upping their media presence this year, festival organizers “rearranged” a few tents and added some new ones based on feedback they got from past events.
“It’s a learning process,” she said. “But this is such a labor of love.”
The day officially began at 10 a.m., with Bexar County residents filing into author presentations and readings with Festival maps and schedules in hand. Non-fiction author Marisa Abrajano (White Backlash), children’s author Xavier Garza (The Donkey Lady Fights La Llorona and Other Stories), and New York Times sports columnist Joe Nocera (Indentured: A Rebellion Against the College Sports Cartel) were just a few of the authors who kicked off the event with nearly full audiences.
San Antonio native John Phillip Santos interviewed noted Texas history writer Stephen Harrigan about his newest book, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. But seasoned Book Festival-goers know that Harrigan is no stranger to the San Antonio Book Festival.
“I’ve been all four years,” he told the Rivard Report after his presentation. “It’s extremely well-run and (the organizers) make writers feel really at home.” As someone well-versed in San Antonio history, he appreciated the Festival organizers going to “great lengths to make it all-encompassing and diverse” with the careful curation of featured authors and works.
“That’s really crucial because San Antonio is such a diverse place,” he said.
As the afternoon progressed, attendees visited the outside tents that featured books for sale and arts and crafts opportunities, some only lured away by the nearby line of food trucks around lunch time. Families sat in the McNutt Gardens, reading newly purchased books in the sun.
The Cooking Tent consistently drew standing-room-only crowds with cooking demos on desserts, chili, vegetarian dishes, and Texas-style recipes. One crowd watched in awe as Chris Waters Dunn and Cappy Lawton of Cappy’s, La Fonda on Main, and Cappyccinos, demonstrated how to make a San Antonio favorite – traditional Mexican enchiladas.
Another part of the Festival’s growing mass appeal is its seemingly endless amount of kid-centered activities. Little ones and their parents scurried from one tent to the next in the festival’s colorful and interactive children’s section. Children built small houses based on The Three Little Pigs story, spun the KSAT-TV prize wheel for coloring books and other gifts, watched a performance by the Magik Theatre, and made personalized story books with some of the Festival’s featured picture book writers and illustrators.
Denise Massey and her two daughters, who came to the Book Festival for the first time this year, were impressed.
“We really liked the children’s section and we made a lot of projects there,” she said. “We’re really enjoying the beautiful day and all the fun stuff going on.”
As it is every year, one of the main goals of the San Antonio Book Festival is to connect a wide-range of authors to local readers. Some of this year’s authors not-to-be-missed included award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye, local playwright Gregg Barrios, author H.W. Brands, and Sonia Manzano, who aside from writing a memoir on growing up in the Bronx also has a regular role as “Maria” on the PBS classic, Sesame Street.
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There seemed to be something for just about everyone, which is the point, Bennett said.
“It’s just such a personal (experience),” she said. “My favorite authors or events may not be anybody else’s, but really, I like them all.”
Though it may be hard to imagine, next year’s Book Festival will be even better, Bennett said, with the celebration of its fifth anniversary. While the Festival has continuously been a precursor to Fiesta, it more importantly is an opportunity for San Antonians to maintain a valuable connection with literature.
As Castro said at Saturday morning’s VIP breakfast, books make us “better human beings.”
“The words you authors put on the page teach us to think, to appreciate different points of view,” he said.
*Top image: Families and book lovers survey the booths for novels and gifts. Photo by Scott Ball.